Khushi drew the shawl closer, savouring the crisp cold air on her face. The mansion gleamed at distance. The blanket of mist was slowly taking over the mountains, shrouding them in the dark. The blurred points of light that lit the driveway to Chandrataal gave it an unreal feel. And like she did often these days, Khushi wondered if it was all real?
Today she had finished one of the pictures early in the evening and had decided to call it a day. She had been working speedily and this one was the sixth painting that she had managed to finish. Another month and she would be able to finish with the paintings in the gallery. Anjili had mentioned some others in one of the rooms upstairs, Arvind Malik’s room. But she could sense Anjili’s reluctance to go into that room. So Khushi decided to concentrate on the task at hand. As it was, she was becoming more and more tangled in the life at Chandrataal.
Of late, her life here had taken on an enchantment of its own, especially since that trip to Chanderpur two week ago. She could not deny that much of this pleasantness was due to Arnav whose mood had mellowed into something warm, delicious and dangerous. There was something about their new found friendship – an undercurrent that she was always aware of and yet could not really put her finger on. It lay behind the bright anticipation with which she went downstairs these days for the breakfast. Usually Arnav was already in the room, often with Sheetal who would go stone as Khushi entered. But Khushi brushed her aside. It was with his gruff good morning and the teasing smile that started her day.
And then there were those moments of surprise when he decided to visit the gallery unannounced. ‘To check if I am getting the money’s worth,’ he would tease. And she would tell him what a philistine he was that to see art only in terms of money. On these occassions he rarely showed any hurry to leave. HE would sit with his coffee near the window as she worked and Khushi had a hard time concentrating on the paintings. The sun filtering through the window behind him, would light up the face and Khushi often felt reaching out for her own paint book to draw Arnav Singh Raizada. And then he would turn to look at her suddenly with that teasing smirk and she would hide behind the canvas, a red blush staining her face.
All in all, each night she told herself not to think too much about him, only to forget the admonitions in the morning as he intruded at the most unsuspecting moments of her day.
Arnav stood a little way ahead, ready to take the walking lane she had taken about half an hour ago. He stood facing the mansion, leaning slightly against the stick strapped on his hand. There was a stoicism in the stance and Khushi could almost picture the frown on the forehead as he gazed at the house he loved so much. Her heart skipped a beat as she realized that he had come out at the time she usually took her walk. Today she had been an hour early since she had wound up the work earlier.
Uncomfortable at butterflies that seemed to have found a new home in her stomach, Khushi wondered if she should turn around and hide behind the bend. She would wait till he had left and then go in. But it was of no use. Perhaps he had eyes at the back of his head.
‘Khushi, I see that you have finished your walk early today.’ He said still looking at Chandrataal, his back to her.
‘I..i’ her voice came out all breathless. She cleared her throat. ‘I finished the painting early today.’
He turned with a smile and Khushi felt her lips curve upwards in answer.
‘It’s kind of silent in the house today. There is no one else,’ he said.
Despite the cold, Khushi felt warm around her ears. Anjili must have left long time back and Sheetal had returned to Chanderpur since her college reopened. Khushi was uncomfortably aware that apart from the servants, they would be the only two in the mansion today.
‘Oh..I ..I just had early dinner. I thought you were in Chanderpur, so I ate and came out. Have you eaten? I am sure Raghavan can make you something quickly. Perhaps we should go and ask…’
‘Relax.’ The teasing voice stopped her rambling. He was smiling widely now. The frown had nearly disappeared. Shoulders appeared a little straighter and the air of grimness was receding. ‘Raghavan had saved some for me. I just had my dinner. But I must say I had been expecting some company.’
‘Then you shouldn’t take it for granted, Arnav.’ Khushi recovered some of her composure. ‘You could have called me.’
‘And told you to wait?’
‘Requested me to wait for dinner.’
‘Ah…thank you for correction. Would you have agreed if I had requested?’
‘I might have. Why don’t you try your luck next time?’
‘No time like now, Khushi. If you aren’t too tired, that is. Would you join me for another round of the grounds. It’s a request.’
‘Request granted, Mr. Raizada.’ She shook her head, smiling at him. There was little she could refuse him, she realized.
They walked on silently for a while.
‘Is everything ok, Arnav?’ She asked as she remembered the tension in his stance when he was watching the mansion.
‘Why? Why do you ask?’ he replied with a question of his own.
‘Just a hunch. I thought you didn’t you look happy over here…that is before I joined you?’ she pestered.
‘Didn’t know you observed me so closely.’ It was his turn. Khushi rolled her eyes and waited for him to continue. He shook his head as if shaking off the lightness that last few minutes had brought. ‘You are right though. The trust is not ready to budge. They are going to turn Chandrataal into a heritage resort. Their plans are in full swing.’
‘Is there nothing you can do?’
‘Not much. I just own these lands. And today they offered me money to buy that. An MNC is ready to back the up their plan. That’s the reason they aren’t open to negotiation.’
‘So there is no way out?’
He pursed his lips and shook his head. ‘Not for us. But maybe, if the girl is found.’
‘You are still looking for her?’
He shrugged. ‘The lawyers think she is in Mumbai.’
The lawyers were obviously on the wrong track then. Her heart had leaped up on hearing Arnav mention the girl.
‘She could be our only hope, if she agrees to sell this to us,’ he continued. ‘But then the trust and the MNC would be making their offer too…all depends on her, that is, if she is found.’
‘And what if she falls in love with this place too.’
‘NO. she wouldn’t,’ he said cooly.
‘She wouldn’t? how do you know?’ Something in his tone annoyed her.
‘Its obvious, isn’t it? For her or her mother, this house was never important. Neither was Arvind Malik. Not once did she look back at the heart break the left in their wake. I don’t think such people can love. I am sure she would prefer taking the money and…’
‘You are being unfair to them.’ There was a ring of anger in her voice. Arnav looked at her curiously.
‘I am being unfair to them. On what basis? And you think they have been fair…’
‘But they had nothing to do with this, Arnav. It was your Baba, who…’
‘Who was a fool. The woman obviously was happy to take the money that Arvind Malik’s family offered her to leave.’
‘Offered her money? She was thrown out of the house. Pregnant. No place to go. What if she took the money? Can you blame her? There was no one with her.’ Khushi argued rashly.
Arnav gazed at her silently through narrowed eyes. ‘Why are you defending her? How do you know so much?’
‘I…I ..heard the rumours. I just feel sorry for her.’
‘Oh yes…the rumours that you find so interesting that you are hearing them all the time,’ He muttered.
Khushi stopped walking. The earlier excitement had all but faded. Her heart beat fast. She had committed a major faux pas. Yet Arnav’s tirade rankled and she could not help but defend her mother.
‘I feel tired. I …I think will go back.’ The walk would deteriorate into a fight if they continued. As she turned to walk away, Arnav reached out, with a hand on her shoulder to stop her.
The heat of his palm seeped into her skin, warming her body. Yet the anger did not recede.
‘I am sorry, Khushi’ he whispered. She remained silent, surprised by his apology. But he continued. ‘I am being unfair by taking it out on you. Please, forget it.’ She turned around to gaze at him, refusing to budge. ‘Ok. If you…if you come a little further then….’
Well, I can show you a place. My secret getaway,’ he coaxed.
You secret getaway?
‘I often escape Anjili’s and Sheetal’s prodigious attention by just going there. Come.’ His eyes twinkled and he looked boyish.
‘Is that a bribe, Mr. Raizada?’
‘If you think of it that way’ he smiled back. ‘Come.’ this time the hand on her shoulder slipped into hers and tugged her down the lane. At the end, instead of taking the turn to continue down the lane she took everyday for the walk, Arnav pulled her on a rough mountain trail. It was a narrow trail going away from the house. They negotiated through the trail, Arnav going on clumsily over the roots of trees in the path, testing the ground with his walking stick as he his other hand held on to Khushi’s.
They came to a clear patch and Khushi gasped and then rushed ahead. In the dark of the night, the small clearing glittered with thousands of fireflies. In the mist of the mountains, it seemed they walked in clouds, with stars glittering all around lighting up the small patch with an unearthly glow. A firefly buzzed near her and Khushi reached out to touch. The creature, buzzed away, escaping her fingers. Khushi pouted and then giggled, delighted at the beauty spread before her. ‘It’s beautiful.’ She breathed.
‘Yes. Very beautiful,’ the roughness in Arnav’s voice drew her attention away from the scene. His eyes were fastened on her.
‘Th..thank you for showing me…this..this place.’ She murmured, her heart racing.
Arnav smiled and extended his hand. Khushi looked down. Between the closed fingers, there was faint light emanating in his palm. Khushi extended her hand beneath his but before she could close her fingers around the firefly, it had already floated away.
‘You missed it,’ he whispered, his warm palm now on hers. She felt reluctant to take hers away. So she did not. Khushi took a step closer and felt the hand move up her arm to her shoulders and then up to cup her face. Khushi looked up, spellbound by the intensity of eyes, the beauty around her and then as his head lowered, she closed her eyes and lost herself.